One of President Trump’s most loyal propagandists is predicting that Trump will claim victory on election night as soon as he is ahead among Election Day voters. But that scenario is based on a misconception of how all ballots are counted and the early returns are compiled, according to election and legal experts.
“At 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock… on November 3, Donald J. Trump is going to walk into the Oval Office, and he may hit a tweet before he goes in there… and he’s going to sit there, having won Ohio, and being up in Pennsylvania and Florida, and he’s going to say, ‘Hey, game’s over,’” said Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s 2016 campaign CEO and former White House adviser, during a defiant speech on October 10 forum hosted by the Young Republican Federation of Virginia.
“The elites are traumatized. They do not want to go stand in line and vote. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a game-changer,” Bannon said. “It [the decisive factor] is what electorate shows up to vote on a vote that can be certified. That’s a vote that counts. And right now, what they [Trump critics] don’t want to talk about, is Donald J. Trump leads on people who are actually going to show up and vote on November 3, by 21 percent.”
Bannon’s prediction that Trump would defy norms by asserting that he won before indisputable victory margins were reported was not just another sign that Trump would not heed the rules governing 2020’s election. Bannon’s fiery speech was a glimpse into a propagandist’s mindset that drew on smears and distortions to fan partisan ill will. But his prediction of how Trump could claim an early victory was based on a flawed premise, because no early returns on election night were only going to contain the in-person votes cast on Election Day.
“The first reports are the county totals,” said Chris Sautter, an attorney who has specialized in post-election challenges and recounts for decades. “You don’t get the breakdowns [of votes cast in different categories such as early voting, mail-in votes, Election Day votes, and overseas votes] until after election night. It depends on the state.”
Other election administration experts confirmed that the election night returns would be a mix of all of the earliest votes cast—from early in-person voting sites, from absentee ballots that had been returned and processed, and from in-person voting on Election Day. (As of October 15, more than 16 million absentee ballots had been returned or cast in early voting, the U.S. Elections Project said.)
“Right now… they’ve requested 1.5 million absentee ballots in Pennsylvania,” Bannon said. “Ten to 20 percent will not be certifiable. What that means is it [is] going to be a dogfight in those rooms [in county offices where returned ballots are processed]. Remember, every ballot that can be certified should be certified. And that ballot should count. That’s a vote. But you’ve got a lot of things that you [absentee voters] have got to check off to get to certification, because you chose—you chose—not to go to a poll.”